CAIRO – Egypt’s civilian Cabinet resigned Monday to protest the military’s harsh crackdown on demonstrators as an uprising against the ruling military council swelled into a third day of running battles in downtown Cairo.
Analysts openly debated whether the military council could survive the rising tide of protest, which bore striking resemblance to the 18 days of violence that led to the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. But they were also uncertain about what could come next in a country where the military has been the dominant political force for six decades.
The turmoil comes just days before crucial parliamentary elections, set for Monday, the first since Mubarak was toppled from office.
“This is a confirmation that the supreme council has failed in managing the transitional period,” said Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian commentator and editor of the English-language Ahram Online website. “This is not a sign, it’s a confirmation, of their inability and lack of experience in running a state.”
Tens of thousands of demonstrators continued to hold on to positions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square early today, despite repeated efforts by security forces to drive them out. Protest leaders called for a “million man march” today to show their defiance of the military council.
Demonstrators demanded the dismissal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the military council’s head.
For its part, the council called for “dialogue” and “study” in a statement issued early today, but it gave little indication that it was considering steps likely to calm demonstrators’ anger after days of choking through tear gas and nursing wounds from birdshot. Protesters have sought a firm timetable for the military to hand over the country to civilian rulers, but the council has made no such gesture.
“The supreme council is acting exactly like the Mubarak government,” said activist Muhammed Radwan. “They’re giving concessions because of the pressure that built up against them, and they never expected it. We won’t accept any of their concessions. We will not negotiate with them anymore.”
Steven A. Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the military “clearly has miscalculated” and appears to be looking to a new formula, such as a so-called national salvation government or a consultative council, to manage the nation’s transition. The longer protesters remain in the square, willing to confront the security forces, however, the greater the likelihood that the generals will have to cede authority, he said.
“If they get anywhere near a million,” Cook said of today’s protest, “it’s unclear how the SCAF can continue.” SCAF is the acronym for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Perhaps the council’s biggest misstep was floating an unsolicited set of guidelines for the drafting of a new constitution. The document would give the council extraordinary powers over the process, including budget control and the right to disband the drafting assembly and appoint a new one if it failed to meet a deadline.
That was the issue that brought protesters to Tahrir Square on Friday in one of the largest outpourings of dissent since Mubarak’s ouster. But just as in the final days of Mubarak’s three decades in power, the ceiling of demands shot up in response to the rising death toll as the military attacked demonstrators Saturday.